A sermon preached in All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi on 1st May 2016, by David Holloway.
Why Spiritual Growth?
Our subject is 'spiritual growth'. But, there may be someone here this morning who is asking, "Why should we be concerned with spiritual growth?" A simple answer is this: while undoubtedly there are vast changes in the modern world, three things never change. Let me explain.
The world has radically changed since I first stepped onto Kenyan soil in 1965. In those days the road from Nairobi to Mombasa, outside the city, was a murram road for much of the way. And there was very little traffic. Contrast that with last Friday evening's traffic jams!
In those days I was working for the CMS (the Church Missionary Society) in Omdurman in the Sudan. But then, in the 1960s there were no emails or news apps on a smart phone. You communicated by airmail letter on (so called) India paper. And the news, for us British people, came from The (London) Times newspaper, also printed on lightweight India paper, and reaching the Sudan two weeks late if you were fortunate. But with all the world's change (and often for the good) the basic problems of life are the same now as they were in the past then. They have not changed. They still require spiritual solutions and spiritual growth.
The World's Three Great Problems
It was the evangelist, Billy Graham, who used to identify three such problems that were, and are, often terrible and always tragic. They were there in Old and New Testament times. They were there back in the 1960s and they are still with us today.
The first problem is sin. And sin certainly has not changed. People have changed its name, and there are all sorts of attempts to alter behaviours to soften sin's effects. But men and women are still sinners putting themselves in the place of God. And the results of sin are still "disease, disappointment, despair, disillusionment and hell," to quote Graham.
Then the second problem is sorrow and that has not changed. The friends and loved ones of those who died in that terrible Nairobi building collapse on Friday know that only too well. So do the friends and loved ones of those others who died because of the rains. And, of course, there are family and personal sorrows that few, if any, know about. A number here this morning will be only too well aware of such personal sorrow.
And the third problem is death and that has not changed. As the atheist George Bernard Shaw once said, "one out of every one dies." And the sadness is that for millions there is no hope. Another atheist, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, wrote in his autobiography, "there is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within."
Grow Spiritually To Bring Hope
So those are three problems that mark every generation of history. The past is stained with sin. The present is full of sorrow. And the certainty of death faces each one in the future. And for millions, when they have time to reflect on these things, they are reduced to feelings of hopelessness. But that is precisely why the world needs to know that there is a solution to the problems of sin, sorrow and death. And that solution is one reason why Christian people must grow spiritually. For as Peter said in 1 Peter 3.15, you are to be …
"always… prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope [he doesn't say 'faith' but 'hope'] that you have."
You are to grow spiritually to be able to witness to that solution which can be expressed in ten words.
Some of you who travel in aeroplanes may, like me, always choose the information option on the plane's monitors. That shows you the route and other details of the flight. To make clear where you are going, you are given changing maps. And they go from large scale maps, to medium scale maps, to small scale maps showing you much, if not all, of the world.
You are given something like that regarding the Christian life, to make it clear where you are going spiritually. For to know your way around spiritually, you need information on the small scale that embraces so much, like you have in the Bible with its three quarters of a million words. You then need statements on an intermediate scale, such as the Anglican 39 Articles. Then on a larger scale you need the Nicene and Apostles Creeds.
Jesus – The Same Yesterday, Today And Forever
But also essential are some of those very large scale verses of Scripture. They sum up much fundamental truth, such as John 3.16. And one such large scale truth verse supplies the answer to those three problems. Its truth is found in only ten words in the letter to the Hebrews. The ten words are simply:
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13.8)
That glorious truth means that while the world may and does change, Jesus, and all he means, does not change. And millions upon millions have proved the truth of that verse.
The word "yesterday" refers to Jesus' incarnation when he was on earth, teaching and, of course, dying. "Today" refers to 2016 when, risen, he is in heaven and reigning over all, as we celebrate this coming Thursday on Ascension Day. And "forever" looks to the future when he will come again. Then there will not only be judgment but the great hope of a new heaven and a new earth.
Yesterday he died to bear your sin, so you can be forgiven for all eternity. Then today as you experience those sad times, he is praying for you, from heaven, and you can take your sorrows to him for he cares for you. And one day he is coming again for you, if you truly trust in him. So other things may change but Christ will never change.
Who here this morning needs to learn that lesson? Who has never yet surrendered to Jesus Christ and begun the spiritual life so that you can start to grow spiritually? Well, let me quote those famous 26 words from John's Gospel and chapter 3, for you to think about and, if you can, respond to:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever [so that includes you] believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
The Disease Of False Teaching Impedes Spiritual Growth
But Jesus, in John 3, has just spoken about eternal life beginning now in this life with a new birth. It is a metaphor for a real spiritual fact. It means that such a born-again person has new power, because of new spiritual life that the Holy Spirit brings.
However - and this is a big 'however' - in human life, as we all know, there are diseases and disabilities. These can prevent proper development and growth. But that is also so true of the Christian life. There are diseases and other negative factors that prevent healthy spiritual growth. And there were some of these referred to this morning in our Bible readings from Peter's and then Paul's letters. Let's think about them (2 Peter 3.14-18 and Ephesians 4.1-7).
First, what does Peter have to say to us about these diseases or infections? They relate to some of the background culture of 2 Peter. For in the background is the reality of heretical teaching that goes under the label "gnostic". We know of this from some of the early Christian fathers, together with modern archaeological finds. They reveal a weird hotchpotch of ideas that people can have and believe in, when they drift away from clear biblical, apostolic Christianity but want still to be connected with the Church. And such teaching is the background to 2 Peter and it was totally false.
The Denial Of The Second Coming Of Christ
So Peter's first spiritual health warning is to be on your guard against spiritual diseases from such false teachers. In earlier verses of chapter 3 you can read how people were denying the Second Coming of Christ. Happily, the recipients of Peter's letter would have none of that. They knew that history was linear, and that, as Genesis 1 clearly teaches, God created time. No matter how you interpret the "days" in Genesis 1, it is clear that they were all part of God's creation. And the Bible clearly teaches that time, as we know it, not only began: one day it will end – with Christ's return and a New Heaven and New Earth. All that may be hard to imagine. But never confuse the unimaginable with the unbelievable. When I first visited Kenya it was unimaginable that anyone could walk on the moon. But only four years later Neil Armstrong defied our imaginations and did just that - walk on the moon.
The proof of that linear understanding of time is Jesus' real resurrection leaving a tomb empty that first Easter. That is what Paul told the Greeks in Athens who probably had a cyclical view of time and history. In Acts 17.30 he ended his sermon at Athens with these words:
"God… now… commands all people to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."
So on the basis of their confidence in the second coming of Christ, Peter writes in 2 Peter 3.14:
"So then dear friends, since you are looking forward to this [Christ's coming again], make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him."
Teaching That Endorses Sexual Immorality
You see, the false teachers then, as now, did not only deny basic credal doctrines, such as the Second Coming of Jesus. They also denied, then, as now, basic New Testament morality, including sexual morality. For in 2 Peter "spotless" and "blameless" has to do with drunken orgies. After talking about Sodom and Gomorrah, he talks about these false teachers in 2 Peter 2.13:
"Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes [the same words as in 3.14 but without their negative prefixes], reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed – an accursed brood."
So – one way you grow spiritually is as you heed this warning of spiritual infection. Peter says in verse 17 of our chapter:
"Dear friends, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever. Amen."
And do not think that such a situation could only happen in the 1st century. This situation of people denying fundamental doctrine and ethics is still happening. We at Jesmond Parish Church in England have had to be in impaired communion with our bishop over doubts and denials of the virginal conception of Jesus and his empty tomb; and also because of our bishop saying that homosexual relationships are permitted for the laity.
Making The Bible Mean What You Want
But how do such lawless people worm their way into the Church? One answer is there in verse 16 of 2 Peter 3 and the reference to Paul, where Peter says,
"His [Paul's] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction."
In Britain we have just been noting the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of the great British playwright, William Shakespeare. I never forget his line in the Merchant of Venice where Antonio says:
"The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."
That is a reference to the devil quoting Scripture and tempting Jesus in the wilderness as recorded in Matthew 4. If you pick and choose what you like from the Bible, you can justify all sorts of wicked things. But as Anglicans we should be clear. Article XX of the Thirty-nine says::
"It is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."
Yes, the Bible is progressive revelation but it is also cumulative revelation. So the Old Testament has to be interpreted in the light of the New and the New Testament in the light of the Old. That's why you may not make
"one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."
To summarise, then - Peter here is warning about two diseases that stunt Spiritual Growth. One, is the disease of failing to guard against false teaching, and a second is connected, namely the disease of failing to recognise how people are clearly distorting the Bible's plain message. How we should all learn from Peter and guard against those spiritual diseases, if we want to grow spiritually!
Spiritual Growth Requires Unity Through Humility And Love
That, finally, brings us to Paul, and what he teaches about Spiritual Growth. In chapter 4 of Ephesians Paul is highlighting church disunity as a disease threatening spiritual growth. Yes, Paul is as tough as any against false teachers. Later in Ephesians chapter 4 in verse 14 he refers to false teaching that causes people to be:
"tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming."
But Paul in these opening verses of chapter 3 is making a different point. Like Peter, Paul says you have to "make every effort". Peter says, "make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him", referring to that immoral false teaching. But Paul says in Ephesians 4.3: "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."
Unity is so important. But how do you work for unity? Paul says in 4.2:
"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love."
When the chips are down we can all be awkward customers. We all have rough edges. So how important that you bear "with one another in love". And Paul later says in this chapter, when you have to be tough with one another, you should speak "the truth in love". On the one hand, it is often loving to speak hard truth. But, on the other hand, hard truth should be communicated lovingly. So, first, the cultivation of Christlike humility and love are necessary for the unity the Church.
Unity Requires Unity Over Fundamental Doctrine
But, secondly, for conquering the disease of disunity, you need unity from the confidence that there is only, as Paul writes, "one body and one Spirit… one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." For there is no plurality of gods or goddesses and multi-faithism. As Peter said of Jesus before the Jewish leadership soon after Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension:
"Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4.12).
So the disease of disunity is also countered by unity over fundamental Trinitarian doctrine including the uniqueness and finality of Christ.
I must conclude. In doing so, may I just say this? The lessons from today's readings, which from your series were not my choice but, I believe, providential, are surely relevant as a new Archbishop is appointed later this month. They teach that you should be praying for a man who is faithful in fighting off spiritual diseases, especially the disease of false teaching, and so he will enable spiritual growth. He also needs to strive to maintain the unity of the Church through humility and love but with a firmness over fundamental doctrine and ethics.